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Prioritizing Equity in Our Parks: Doing More in 2021

*Enjoying the fall colors on a hike around Idlewild Park along the Truckee River.

I started my role as the Communications Coordinator VISTA with the Parks Foundation in February of 2020, and as I come to the end of my service, I reflect on all the things that I’ve learned throughout the year. For one, I’ve learned that Gus Bartley, of Bartley Ranch, was originally named Gustavo Buscaglia and was the son of an Italian ranch hand. I’ve learned that the branches of a manzanita plant are cold to the touch, even on the hottest of summer days, and the Lodgepole pine actually thrives after a fire. I’ve learned that countless plants, native to the Truckee Meadows, have medicinal properties historically used by the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe tribes. I’ve also (painfully) learned that a 12 mile, completely uphill hike takes about 7 hours to complete and leaves you sore and hating life for over a week. But the view is always worth it!

Additionally, I’ve learned that, despite the numerous inspirational quotes about the outdoors meaning freedom, beauty, and a release from life’s strains, it is actually a resource that many people aren’t granted access to, due to either their skin color, socioeconomic status, or even physical abilities (or perceived lack thereof.) Through the events of 2020, I’ve learned that regardless of centuries of policies to keep nature free and open for all, there’s a grim history of gatekeeping that has prevented many marginalized communities from enjoying the access and safety of nature that many others with privilege freely take for granted. During the height of the summer when national protests over police brutality raged on, the issue of racism in outdoor spaces also came to light. This issue is one to which many people, like myself, had never given much prior thought. And yet, it is one that many black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have firsthand experience with.

On May 25th, Christian Cooper, a black man, was harassed by a white woman in Central Park as he was birdwatching in a public space. When confronted by Cooper to leash her dog, as per park regulations, the woman became angry and threatened to call the police on the man. During the phone call, it became clear that his skin color became the motivation for her complaint. This woman, feeling that she had more ownership over this public space to use as she wanted than Cooper, attempted to weaponize her privilege when confronted about her misuse of the space. Luckily, the event didn’t escalate, but it is easy to imagine the possible deadly consequences this interaction could have had for Cooper, a man just pursuing his outdoor hobby. You can read more on the story here: (The Bird Watcher, That Incident and His Feelings on the Woman’s Fate).

This incident shed light on the issue of personal safety that many people of color face in outdoor spaces. After the story broke, BIPOC in science, tech, engineering, and mathematics fields (STEM) came forward with similar such anecdotes of the discrimination and racism they’ve encountered while attempting to enjoy nature and while doing their jobs in outdoor spaces. Stories of BIPOC scientists, environmentalists, naturalists, and outdoor enthusiasts alike came pouring out through social media. These stories further highlighted the barriers in place that make it difficult for BIPOC to do their jobs or pursue their hobbies. As a result, their shared experiences inspired movements such as #blackbirdersweek and #blackAFinSTEM to highlight the work of BIPOC in STEM fields and their strategies to overcome the challenges they face.( Meet Two of the Founders of #blackbirdersweek).

*Our students getting to Skype a scientist during Summer Camp. They got to speak to female and first generation scientists in many interesting fields.

Admittedly, despite my efforts to educate myself on systemic racism and my interest in environmental advocacy, I never before considered the intersection between environmental and racial justice. I also never considered the immense negative impact that racial inequality and injustice has on the environment and vice versa. Ultimately, it is argued that fighting climate change cannot be fully achieved until we address systemic racism and inequality. This summer, I committed myself to learning more about environmental justice and listening to more diverse voices in the environmental field through blogs, podcasts, and social media.

The environmental justice movement encouraged me, and many others at the Parks Foundation, to listen deeper and educate ourselves more on the barriers and challenges that people in our community face in accessing the outdoors. Although reaching underserved populations in our community has always been at the forefront of our mission, the events of 2020 have pushed us to be more conscientious and purposeful in how we structure our programs to do so, and to do our part to amplify their voices and experiences.

Through our Student Stewards Program, we strive to promote diversity and inclusion in our lessons. We offer scholarships to make our programs more accessible to those in need. We hope that our Junior Naturalist programs and SSP Camps will inspire our students to achieve whatever they want and know that they can thrive in any field they choose, regardless of their background or ethnicity. Through our interpretive community programs, we strive to bring awareness of the historical contributions that our neighboring Native American communities have made for the Truckee Meadows and honor them, while also acknowledging that the land we currently enjoy and inhabit was not ours to begin with. Through our office culture, we strive to promote unity and inclusivity so that we may create a welcoming environment for all who give their time and heart to our organization.

*Students playing together in the park during our JNats program.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and as we honor his life and legacy and reflect on the progress for racial equality that has been made since his speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, we need to acknowledge that the work is far from over. There are still far too many areas where racial injustice reigns unfettered. We need to educate ourselves on such areas so we can be better advocates and help make change going forward into 2021 and beyond.

How? By reading literature written by BIPOC. By listening to their stories. And by considering ways you can help advocate for equity and inclusion in our outdoor spaces. Nature is the great equalizer and should always be treated as such. It’s through our open spaces that we gather, reconnect, and learn about our place in the world. Through nature, our children learn how to steward and care for the environment and those around them. Nature should be free and open to all, regardless of race, nationality, or socio-economic background. And it is up to all of us to make it so for our neighbors now and for future generations.

To read more about intersectional environmentalism, feel free to read these resources:

Parks Foundation Blogs & Resources

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mission Statement


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